Tom Brady got the thing he wanted most out of his return to his first NFL home of 20 years: A victory.
Brady also got a warm reception from the home crowd during warmups, a pregame embrace with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a postgame talk with Bill Belichick and a new trophy as the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards, but it was leading his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to a win over his old team that was top priority.
Brady and the Buccaneers got what they wanted with a 19-17 victory Sunday night at Gillette Stadium, but the Patriots didn't make it easy. The win wasn't secured until Nick Folk's 56-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright less than two minutes after Ryan Succop's fourth field of the night, a clutch 48-yarder that completed the 50th game-winning drive of Brady's illustrious career.
"It was great, it was great," said Brady of the crowd's reaction to his return. "It was a great night of football. It was obviously a very tough game that came down to a couple plays and I'm glad we were able to win."
The Buccaneers improved to 3-1 with the win and moved into a tie for first in the NFC South with the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers, New Orleans and Atlanta Falcons all lost on Sunday afternoon. Head Coach Bruce Arians stressed that the night was about winning as a team, not one player or one opposing coach.
"I think it's very, very special for [Brady], obviously," said Arians. "He kept it inside all week and he's probably letting it out right now. It was a big week for him but it was a bigger week for the team. I was very, very frustrated saying this was 'quarterback and coach.' This is a team sport. The Bucs won this game, and we beat the Patriots. We're losing sight that this is a team game. Everybody wanted to make this about Brady and Belichick, and I don't think Bill played a snap. He had 22 guys out there playing their ass off; I knew they would. And we have 22 guys playing out their playing their asses off."
Belichick's Patriots, who came into the night with the NFL's fifth-ranked defense, largely took away the deep ball, contested nearly every pass and dared the Bucs to run the ball with their coverage choices. Brady completed 22 of 43 passes, and his 21 incompletions on the night were his second-highest in any game as a Buccaneer. He was also held without a touchdown pass for just the second time in 24 games with Tampa Bay, playoffs included. Brady still threw for 269 yards and wasn't intercepted on a rainy evening, but the offense as a whole had trouble operating inside the Patriots' 30-yard line. The Bucs finished the night with just one touchdown on four trips into the red zone and scored fewer than half of their per-game average coming into the night.
"They did a good job, they did a good job," said Brady. "It was a tough game, hard-fought game. We ran the ball well, moved it, we just didn't get it in the red zone. We also had a few costly drive-killing mistakes that limited us. Tough weather. Just a difficult game. We had to grind it out. They've got a good team. They've got good cover players, they've got a good rush, they've got some hits on me tonight so I'll be a little sore tomorrow."
Brady, who was greeted with a round of cheers and a chant of his name when he took the field before the game, was booed by the crowd when he went out to lead Tampa Bay's first drive. The cheers briefly returned when Brady broke the NFL's passing-yardage record with a 28-yard completion to Mike Evans in the first quarter. Brady finished the night with 80,560 career yards, surpassing the previous record of 80,358 by Drew Brees.
"I just think it's an amazing statistic in that so many people can share it with me," said Brady. "The quarterback can just throw it. Passing yards have to be caught. I just hope that everybody that caught passes from me over the years just had a little smile on their face to night just knowing they contributed to it."
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Week four matchup against the New England Patriots.
Brady was supported by the Buccaneers' most concerted and productive effort to run the ball so far in 2021. Tampa Bay came into the game averaging just 56.3 rushing yards per game but got 119 against the Patriots. Leonard Fournette led the way with 91 yards on 20 carries while also adding 47 on THREE catches. It was Ronald Jones, however, who ran it in from eight yards out in the third quarter to give the Bucs a short-lived 13-7 lead.
The game was understandably billed as "The Return" with Brady making his first trip back to Gillette Stadium since leaving for the Buccaneers in free agency in 2020. Before Brady started a second chapter in his NFL career, he played 20 seasons for Belichick's Patriots and helped lead them to nine Super Bowls and six championships. Brady then went on to win a seventh Super Bowl in his first year with the Buccaneers, but Sunday was seen as another referendum in the ongoing Brady-vs.-Belichick debate. As in, who was most responsible for building that two-decade dynasty. Brady tried to downplay that aspect of this matchup with his teammates but admits he did have some added emotion during the week and on Sunday night.
"I tried not to predict what was going to happen and how to feel," said Brady. "I had a few emotional moments this week just thinking about all the people that have really meant so much to me and my life, and being a part of this community. I'm just very grateful for my time here. Like I said, my football journey took me somewhere else. I'm really enjoying that. It's great to get a win. Three-and-one against a really good football game tonight is what we wanted to get done."
Belichick's Patriots broke out a handful of trick plays, including two that ended up with wide receiver Jakobi Meyers throwing completions for big plays. The second went to Nelson Agholor for 30 yards down to the nine to set up Nick Folk's go-ahead field goal with less than five minutes to play.
The Buccaneers trailed by a point, 7-6, at halftime despite having a net yardage advantage of 227-130. Brady had led the offense inside New England's 30 three times, with two reaching the red zone, but that resulted in just three Ryan Succop field goal attempts, of which he hit two. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers' defense largely limited Mac Jones to short passes but the Patriots' rookie quarterback was able to dig his team out of second-and-19 and second-20 holes on a 74-yard touchdown drive.
The Buccaneers' cornerback situation was approaching dire, and it got there just before halftime when Carlton Davis suffered a quad injury on a punt play. That left Tampa Bay without its three opening-day starters, as Sean Murphy-Bunting (injured reserve) and Jamel Dean were already out. Veteran Richard Sherman started the game in Dean's place despite just signing with the team on Wednesday. After Davis's injury, the Bucs turned to Pierre Desir, who just signed with the team's practice squad 20 days ago and was promoted to the active roster on Saturday.
Tampa Bay's pass rush, which recorded only three sacks and ranked last in sacks-per-pass play through three weeks, turned the heat up somewhat on Jones. The rookie was sacked four times, twice by rookie OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. It was consecutive sacks by Will Gholston and Tryon-Shoyinka that forced a punt from deep in New England territory and set the Bucs' offense up for its first touchdown drive of the game in the third quarter.
"We knew he wasn't a very mobile quarterback who would stand in the pocket and go to his second and third option," said Tryon-Shoyinka. We knew it was going to be our task, the whole D-Line, to just get after him and get him off the spot. We did a pretty good job of it.
The Buccaneers won the toss and deferred, and immediately got off to a poor start when Bradley Pinion's kick went out of bounds at the one-yard line. That resulted in a penalty giving the Patriots a starting point of their own 40-yard line. New England started out in a no-huddle and got across midfield with three short passes out to the right. However, Tryon-Shoyinka followed with the first sack of his career and Lavonte David broke up a third-down pass intended for Nelson Agholor.
The Bucs' first drive started at their own 11. Fournette broke through several tackles on third-and-two to pick up 21 yards. However, the drive stalled five yards shy of midfield when Brady's deep shot to Cameron Brate was just out of reach.
The Buccaneers nearly created the game's first turnover when OLB Shaq Barrett punched the ball from Jakobi Meyers' hands, with Devin White recovering. However, the play was reviewed and changed to an incomplete pass. However, that led to third-and-14 and the Patriots had to punt again after failing to convert. A block-in-the-back penalty on Rashard Robinson kept the Bucs from getting good field position out of the exchange.
Bottled up on a first-down run up the middle, Fournette bounced outside for an 11-yard gain to start the next drive. A bubble-screen to Brown worked to the tune of 13 yards, and a pass over the middle to Evans was good for 13 more into Patriots territory. The 28-yard catch by Evans that got Tom Brady the passing yardage record made it first down at the 11 but three incompletions forced the Bucs to settle for Succop's 29-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead with five minutes left in the first quarter.
The Bucs got the ball back just over a minute later on the game's first turnover. With a blitzing White putting a hit on Jones as he threw down the middle to Agholor, Ross Cockrell got a hand on it for a deflection and Winfield hauled it in at the Bucs' 34.
The Bucs got to midfield on the ensuing possession with a series of quick throws, and then Brady looked downfield to Brown, hitting him on the left sideline for a gain of 27 to the Patriots' 21. After flipping sides to start the second quarter, the Bucs got into the red zone for a second time but had to kick again after incompletions on second and third down. This time, however, Succop pushed his 36-yard field goal to the right and the score remained 3-0.
On the ensuing drive, Jones dug the Patriots out of a second-and-19 hole with completions of 16 yards to Kendrick Bourne and 15 yards to Meyers, the latter on a wide-open target after a bit of miscommunication between Sherman and Mike Edwards. Sherman was also flagged for pass interference on a third-down incompletion three plays later to keep the drive alive. Jones then rescued New England from another second-and-20, once again picking up most of it on a 16-yard square-in to Meyers. Another pass-interference call, this one on Davis, gave the Patriots a first down at the Bucs' 14. Two plays later, Jones found tight end Hunter Henry down the middle for an 11-yard touchdown pass and a 7-3 Patriots lead.
The Bucs couldn't overcome an eight-yard sack by Matt Judon on their next possession and had to punt it back with five minutes left in the half. A six-yard sack by Barrett put the Patriots into yet another long third down on the next drive, but New England pulled out a trick play that had Meyers throwing back across the field to RB Brandon Bolden, which was good for 15 yards. The Patriots appeared to be going for it on fourth-and-two at the Bucs' 44-yard line but then rushed out the punt team before taking a delay-of-game penalty.
That punt was bad for the Bucs on multiple levels. First, it rolled down to the five, putting 95 yards between Brady and the opposing end zone with just 1:49 to go in the half. Worse, Davis went down with his quad injury on the play and was lost for the remainder of the game.
That terrible field position wasn't enough to keep Brady from getting the Bucs into scoring position again. This time, completions of 28 and 26 yards to Godwin got the ball over midfield and an 11-yard catch by Brate put the ball at the Patriots' 26. However, three incompletions followed and the Bucs had to send Succop out again to try a 44-yard field goal. He nailed this one with 13 seconds left in the half to make it a one-point game.
The Bucs got the ball first to start the second half but committed a series of mistakes and gave it up quickly. First, Jaydon Mickens was stopped at the 15 on his kickoff return, then Cam Brate dropped a well-thrown seam pass that would have moved the sticks. Brady then lofted a pass deep down the right sideline that was good for 44 yards to Brown but was erased by an illegal use of hands penalty on Donovan Smith. The result was New England getting the ball at Tampa Bay's 38 on their first possession of the half.
Tampa Bay's defense squashed that scoring threat with the game's second turnover. Winfield tripped up RB J.J. Taylor on a quick flare pass, in the process jarring the ball loose, with Sherman recovering at the Bucs' 32. Despite an eight-yard run by Fournette on first down, the Bucs were unable to pick up a first down after the takeaway and punted the ball back to New England, down to the 23-yard line.
Consecutive sacks by Gholston and Tryon-Shoyinka made short work of the ensuing Patriots' possession. The Bucs then averted disaster when Mickens' fumble on the punt was recovered by New England but erased by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Matthew Slater. After a re-punt, the Bucs took over at their own 47, midway through the third quarter.
Four straight plays to Fournette – a screen and three handoffs going to the left – got the Bucs a first down at the Patriots' 20. Jones pounded over right guard to convert a third-and-one and make it first-and-goal at the eight. Jones took it in from there with a very sharp run, sweeping right and then cutting hard between defenders to get inside the five and just extend the ball over the pylon. The extra point made it 13-7 in Tampa Bay's favor with 3:29 to play in the third quarter.
Jones and the Patriots answered immediately, driving 77 yards on seven plays to take the lead right back on Jones's one-yard touchdown pass to TE Jonnu Smith. A 21-yard pass to running back Damien Harris got it started, and a middle screen to Bolden for 15 yard took the ball down to the one-yard line. After switching sides to start the fourth quarter, Jones got the Patriots into the end zone with a play-action pass to a wide-open Jonnu Smith in the middle of the end zone. The extra point by Nick Folk put the home team back up by one.
A rare scramble by Brady converted a third-and-six near midfield on the Bucs' next possession, and a well-designed screen to Fournette went for 23 yards up the right sideline to the New England 25. Brady converted a critical third-and-nine with an 18-yard pass to Brate down to the six. Once again, however, the drive stalled inside the 20 and the Bucs settled for Succop's third field goal, a 27-yarder, and a two-point lead with eight minutes left in regulation.
The Meyers-Agholor trick play was the long play in a quick, 66-yard drive that led to Folk's 26-yard field goal with 4:34 left in the fourth quarter. The Bucs' defense held inside the 10-yard line but missed a golden opportunity to seal the game when White couldn't hold on to a potential interception.
The Buccaneers answered with another lead-changing drive, getting a 31-yard chunk on the first snap when LB Kyle Van Noy was called for pass interference on a deep pass to Fournette down the right sideline. Brady converted a third-and-six with an eight-yard out to Brown but the two were unable to hook up on two passes into the back right corner of the end zone. Succop nailed a 48-yard field goal to put the Bucs back up with just under two minutes to play.
Jones led the Patriots back into Bucs territory on the next drive but David tipped away a third-down pass from the 38-yard line. New England elected to send Folk out to try a 56-yard field goal and his strong kick had the distance but hit low on the left upright.